“She who has given rise to the wish for freedom
And is set on it, shall be clear in mind.”
~ Therigatha: Selected Poems of the First Buddhist Women
Written around two millennia ago by Buddhist nuns, Therigatha is amongst the oldest specimens of women’s writing in the world. Etymologically, theri means ‘senior ones’, a title these women earned due to their religious achievement and gatha means verses. These poems, originally composed in the vernacular languages, were standardised and rewritten in Pali around third century BC. Commenting on these poems, Dhammapala, the sixth-century Buddhist scholar, called them udanas or inspired utterances.
The fierce and individual feminine voice in these poems is striking. Like meditations on spiritual self-determination, these poems hint at an ungendered path of liberation. They are the celebration of attainment of the knowledge of tevijja, three things that most people don’t know. It is equivalent of trayi vidya, the knowledge of three vedas, which remained unattainable to women in the Brahmanical tradition.
The poems are contained in the Pali canon of Theravada Buddhism in the section called Khuddakanikaya (Minor Collection). However, the poems are not doctrinally heavy. They avoid specifics of meditation but focus on the human journey which evokes a universal sense of empathy. The women featured in the poems come from all walks of life—princesses and prostitutes, widows and wives, royals, and beggars. Many of their stories, especially the ones featuring Buddha’s cousins and aunts, are told and retold in the folk culture. These poems are unlike other accounts of salvation in the generous descriptions of the failures at attaining the desired consciousness. There is equanimity in the description of enlightenment; the narrative of worldly life remains fierce and bashful.
“Self-controlled with the body,
With speech, and with the mind,
Having pulled out craving down to the root,
I have become cool, free.”
In a culture where women have so often been seen as roadblocks in the path for attainment of liberation, their divinities are assumed to be sexless. These poems refrain from making any such gendered assumptions. The binary of women as either a seductress or an innocuous goddess is not evoked. On the contrary, these women discuss their struggles in giving up their sexual lives, which not only brought them pain but also added to their circle of karma. The humaneness of the feminine pursuit to nibbana or liberation is endearing. For example, there is a poem which brings to mind the visual image of an old woman on her exhausting journey.
“Even though I am emaciated, exhausted, and very weak,
still I go on, leaning on stick, climbing the mountain.
I have thrown off my outer robe
turned my bowl over,
I leaned against a rock
after splitting open
the mass of mental darkness”
The book is replete with such moving stories. In one of the poems, a woman named Soma is told that it is hard for women to reach the place which sages aspire because of women’s inherently inferior wisdom. Soma vehemently retorts:
“What does being a woman have to do with it?
what counts is that the heart is settled
and that one sees what really is.”
Thus, the achievement of the aspirational spiritual fulfilment becomes merit-based. Their ambition, free from the shackles of gender, becomes contingent on the consistency of their hard work. The ideas of understanding and practice in the Buddhist theory are central in this context. In these narratives, when a woman comes across Buddha’s ideas, she first listens. The listening is followed by understanding and experiencing and then comes the knowledge. A nun remarks,
“After I had cultivated mindfulness,
And was already a nun who knew well how to know”
It is this privileging of experiential knowledge (the eye that sees the invisible, I have cleansed through training) that really makes their idea of spirituality genderless. Even Buddha, Gautama or other enlightened men, to them is a friend, a mentor and not God.
“After I heard what he said, I lived
Delighting in his teaching.
I have seen with my own eyes
The three thing that most don’t know,
What the Buddha taught is done”
But this process is often interjected by questioning and failed attempts. Many women talk about the number of years or visits to the nuns it took them to really understand Dhamma. It was this experience that they canvassed for through argumentation.
However, this process does not obliterate their past lives. These women repeatedly mention the pains of domestic duties and bearing children. The exhaustion of household duties is described in graphic detail comparing it to the grinding with a pestle. A woman reminiscing her household life questions why she has not attained freedom despite fulfilling the duties of the household diligently. Chanda, a young woman rendered destitute by her parents’ death tells a nun, “Make me go forth to homelessness.” The homelessness frequents these seekers’ minds. On visitation by their children, they wish renunciation for them. Asking her son to follow the ascetic path, Vaddha says, “May you never have any lust in this world.” A blessing which seems completely culturally incompatible in our society. The son, acknowledging the wisdom of his mother, says,
“I heard her words,
Instruction by the one who gave me birth,
And I felt a profound urgency to reach the state of freedom.”
But not all families so readily accepted the spiritual path of these women. There are many instances of family discord. In one example, when repeatedly asked why does she need to renounce her regular life despite her youth and beauty, a woman named Sundari makes an evocative speech,
“My relatives, you know that I have gone forth,
that my head is shaven and I wear a nun’s robe,
so why are you trying to get me to go back to those pleasures
as if you were my enemies?”
The women argued whenever traditional or religious duties were put forth. They were skeptical of other ascetics. They do not shy away from calling out superstitions and criticising dogmas.
“Those other ascetics are strangers to me, they rely on false views
They do not know the dhamma, they do not know the reality”
The anthology is replete with the renunciation of bodily pleasures. However, this renunciation is not mythical or divine; it is a decision taken after deep thinking and meditation. A young nun while rejecting the advances made by a man tells him:
“Your mind is disturbed, mine is not,
You are impure, I am not,
My mind is free wherever I am.
Why do you keep me from my way?”
Sometimes in the rejection, especially in the Great Chapter, the voice is gruesome and vivid in the distaste for the body. It reminds of metaphors used by Bhakti movement poets like Kabir.
“Why should I cling, like a worm,
to a body that will only turn into a corpse,
a sack always, oozing, frightening, stinking
foul and putrid, filled with foul things?”
To label these poems as proto-feminist and modern would be an anachronism. But they are examples of a unique kind of spiritual self-expression. However, they sometimes use stock phrases to communicate shared values but that appears to be a feature of the language of the time. These utterances are not only historical specimens, they are superior works of art. The imaginative expressions and the nuances of experiences cause an epiphanic moment in the minds of the reader. It is not a prosaic description but also the design of the string of words that assumes relevance. A bare reading leaves one trying to meditate on why had these obvious questions of human experience skipped their attention.
“When freedom exists, why would anyone want
Imprisonment and execution?”
Translations are taken from Therigatha: Selected Poems of the First Buddhist Women by Charles Hallisey (Murty Classical Library of India)